Value added volunteering

by Phoebe Churches

phoebe blog 4

Here we are – the last (for now) in this series of posts about building capacity in a small Student Union Community Legal Service. You may recall from previous posts that I have been ruminating on the best possible model to increase the capacity of our tiny legal service to meet its mission as a Community Legal Centre. Law students are asking almost daily if we can take them on and it is impossible to ignore the potential benefits. If we can get the model right, student volunteers could meaningfully contribute to public policy and law reform submissions, develop website content and self-help resources, or write a regular column in Farrago. In terms of case work assistance, student para legal volunteers can conduct intake interviews; do case research and even some basic drafting under supervision.

However, in the context of the preceding posts about ensuring we do not exploit free labour or offer a substandard learning experience to volunteers, the question remains – can we harness the resources of local education providers to deliver an academic context to service delivery and make sure students are well prepared and properly equipped to make the required commitment and observe their ethical duties?

The primary focus of academic clinical programs is the development of practical lawyering skills in a closely supervised environment. The student has the advantage of both practitioner and academic supervision.  According to the Griffith Law School, Clinical Legal Education Programs Strategic Plan 2003 ­2007, the typical model is:

An intensive small group learning experience in which each student takes responsibility for legal and related work for a client (whether real or simulated) in collaboration with a supervisor. The student takes the opportunity to reflect on matters including their interactions with the client, their colleagues and their supervisor as well as the ethical aspects and impact of the law and legal processes.

First and foremost – this model puts the educational experience of students at its core.

When I first started recording my thoughts about this capacity building project I mentioned that the Melbourne Law School (MLS), part of the University in which the tiny legal service is located, did not run a clinical program. Within a few days of that post going live, I was contacted by the (then relatively) new Director of the MLS Public Interest Law Initiative (PILI). She alerted me to the development of a varied and exciting public interest law clinic, through which clinical legal education subjects would be delivered. This could be the answer to our prayer for adequately experienced and well oriented student volunteers who are already inducted into the ways of good legal practice. It may well slot the final piece of the puzzle into place. If the MLS can provide this practical experience to its students with all the attendant educational focus and instruction, perhaps we can draw our volunteers from a pool of students who have successfully completed one or more subjects in the program.

The National Pro Bono Resource Centre defines student pro bono in the following terms:

‘student pro bono’ is where students, without fee, reward or academic credit provide or assist in the provision of services that will provide or enhance access to justice for low income and disadvantaged people or for non­profit organisations that work on behalf of members of the community who are disadvantaged or marginalised, or that work for the public good.

While students at Melbourne University are unlikely as a class to be ‘disadvantaged’, they are nonetheless generally on low or no incomes and will not otherwise have ready access to justice on a fee for service basis. The spread of matters presenting to the service also offer good opportunities for law students to be exposed to real world legal issues in a fairly contained way. There is no shortage of good reasons to have a small but lively group of volunteer law students, but the problem with past ad hoc attempts to recruit and maintain paralegal volunteers was that many simply had no idea of the commitment required and frequently failed to attend rostered shifts or cancelled with very short notice. More troubling, many appeared unaware of the critical ethical and other obligations within a legal practice. These things need to be taught and learned – but our tiny service is just not well enough resourced to do that from first principles. If we are able to recruit students who have completed a clinical subject as part of their studies – we may have solved that problem.

There is considerably more the service could do with greater resources and there is a substantial demand from students for volunteering opportunities. It is difficult in this context to ignore the obvious fit between increasing service capacity and the use of volunteers. The time certainly seems right – the Student Union is currently reviewing the best model for a centrally coordinated volunteer program and this too could inject considerable resources into the establishment of a functional program in the Legal Service.

So where do we begin? Literature on the subject suggests that program establishment is aided by starting small and informally. However a strategy needs to be developed for moving from the informality that enables establishment in uncertain times to the more structured and integrated approaches that are likely to foster longer-term sustainability. At this stage the plan is to establish a small steering group to garner the expertise and experience of others in this area and to get student input into the opportunities they would like to be offered. We will need to develop a suite of policies detailing our obligations with respect to the supervision of students; confidentiality; and conflicts of interest. Finally, a volunteer manual needs to be developed and a set of appropriate precedents generated. Perhaps our inaugural volunteer or intern can work toward this? Any takers?